Yesterday I saw one of my neighbors while he was out for a walk around the Village. I met him at the sidewalk. He asked how the music was going. I asked how was his summer.
“How’re the gardens?” he inquired, craning his neck around the side of the house. I answered the way I always answer. “So far so good…but there’s still plenty of time for something to go wrong.”
“Really?” my neighbor sounded shocked. “You’re garden’s been good?”
“Really?” he pressed. I started worrying that he knew something I didn’t. And then he just looked disappointed, and I realized that it was his garden that wasn’t good.
“It’s been too wet,” he said, hanging his head.
He went on to describe each crop and how it had failed. The lettuce never grew big enough for even one salad. The bean plants yellowed and died due to too much rain. And his garlic was really small.
“Everything is two to three weeks behind…” I said. Though mid-July is typically when the garlic is ready for harvest (after the bottom six or so leaves have browned and dried), my garlic is still half green as we speak.
“We’re going away next week,” he said “or I would have left it. But the rest…it was all growing in standing water…”
I remembered my first growing season when I had high hopes and low expectations. Looking back on it, if I had a year like that now I would consider it a complete and utter failure. We had nearly no food to speak of. A handful of beans, a small head of broccoli, a couple of miniature eggplants, a picnic’s worth of tomatoes.
In our first ever garden I devoted an entire 50 square foot plot to one six pack of cauliflower. I planted cucumbers beneath a horde of sunflowers who so choked them out that they never flowered -though I crawled under there and checked at least a few times a week. We planted sweet corn but I had no idea when it was ready to harvest. I left it on the stalk for far too long and by the time we did cook it for dinner it was inedible mush, suitable only for horses.
Going into that first year I didn’t have faith that anything would grow -but it did. Sure we couldn’t eat much of it, but I’d grown things! I put seeds in the ground and they survived.
My second growing season I was bloated with first year grower’s confidence. I had a brainful of knowledge that I was ready to test out. I knew I needed to harvest the corn earlier. I knew I needed to plant the cucumbers somewhere where they could actually get some light. I realized I could plant things closer together, and thus plant more of them, resulting in more food. I recognized the importance of yields -what were the space hogs of the garden (ahem, eggplant & sweet peppers, and lets be honest, that darn corn). These were the things that, in my climate, took more effort than they produced.
I spent late winter and early spring plotting my garden map, taking into account crop rotations in order to prevent disease, soil depletion, and to control pests. I was ready for year two. But when, after weeks of being in the ground, many of my seeds failed to germinate, I became alarmed. Suddenly I had an epiphany. In all of my planning I’d forgotten about the soil. In all of my reading and researching I devoured the sections about companion planting, crop rotation, block planting, natural insect controls, light feeders vs. heavy feeders vs. givers. But there were whole sections of these books that I skipped over. And they were all about the soil.
To be honest, I skipped over these sections because they looked like a lot of work. A whole lot of digging and flipping and amending and composting and soil building and sweating and back aching. So I ignored them. And now, my plants were ignoring me.
Looking back, I’m certain my seeds didn’t germinate for reasons other than poor soil. Even in poor soil seeds typically germinate. It’s only after they germinate that we start to find out that the soil is poor. The veins of leaves become purple (not enough phosphorus) or they turn yellow (not enough nitrogen). But my alarm bells were ringing because I knew deep down inside that I was ignoring the health of my soil. I panicked.
After reading through all of the parts of the books I had ignored, I realized that I might be too late for that year. But that was when we focused on our compost pile in earnest and started genuinely building our soil for the following season. Not knowing what to do in the meantime, we went to the Garden Store and bought organic fertilizer. And it was expensive! Definitely not a sustainable way of building a garden year after year. I gave each plot its recommended dose of fertilizer, but something about it didn’t feel right. While I dosed the ground with tiny granules I remembered the hefty green plants that had grown there last year. Was I really just going to replace that vibrant, voluminous growth with mere dust?
Healthy soil breeds healthy plants. Everything I was reading about what “healthy soil” meant included promoting living organisms. A complex system of life teeming below the surface. These organic fertilizers were devoid of life and were certainly not inviting it, not like heaps of compost or chopped leaves and grass would. I started to realize that the MOST IMPORTANT crop to grow in your garden is your soil.
Along with the benefits of increased living organisms came other benefits to building soil. Double digging and turning compost into the soil instead of tilling meant that soil wouldn’t become compacted. This was good for encouraging worms, which both break down organic matter as well as introduce their own organic matter in the form of their waste. And soil that hasn’t been compacted and has instead increased in volume from the addition of organic matter, means that the soil has been raised above the ground level, encouraging better drainage. Especially in our heavy clay soil.
When my neighbor told me his plants were underwater, all I could see in my mind was a picture in one of those books whose sections on soil I ignored for a year. It was a photo of a garden walkway where complete sections were submerged underwater. The double dug beds just next to it however, were dry.
“Do you double dig your beds?” I asked my neighbor.
“Oh, no, I don’t do that…” he said “that’s a lot of work.”
I nodded. “Yes, it is. It’s a lot of work.”
“Well, you must be on the dry side of town,” he said.
People often ask me what’s the one thing I’m most excited about that’s growing at the farm. And I’m never sure how to answer that question. But now, I’m realizing that every year the answer will be: my soil.